On several school field trips to the Art Institute of Chicago as a child I found myself gravitating toward an Assyrian artifact that hung in the museum’s ancient and Byzantine art exhibit. The artifact that no longer graced the walls of the Art Institute was an Assyrian relief dating to the 800s B.C. It depicted the head of a winged genie. As a child I was proud that as an Assyrian I was able to connect personally with a piece of antiquity that connected to a period on earth so far back in time. On a recent visit, though, the winged genie was not there. The loss made me question how museums determine what pieces of art they show off and what pieces of art they tuck away.
I wanted to know how two of Chicago’s finest museums, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, decide what art to display.
Rebecca Baldwin, director of public affairs of the Art Institute of Chicago, located on Michigan Avenue, said factors such as the quality of pieces plays a role in regulating what curators display. “Because the Art Institute of Chicago is a global encyclopedic museum, our curators strive to present a balanced exhibition calendar that appropriately represents the world's cultures and periods of history, and that has a relevance to our community. When putting together an exhibition, curators select the art works that best illustrate the thesis of their exhibition,” Baldwin said.
Not all art owned by museums, like the Art Institute’s Assyrian relief, can be marveled by visitors. About 10 percent of art on paper is in storage. A whopping 90 percent of art, such as paintings and sculptures, is displayed by the museum at all times according to Baldwin. Delicate pieces sensitive to light and deterioration, such as prints, etchings and watercolors, are conserved in storage. If guests wish to see a stored piece of art, they can schedule an appointment with the museum.
The Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood focuses on telling stories or conveying ideas, even if the displayed object may be a bit broken. “Different museums have different procedures,” said Emily Teeter, Egyptologist and research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The museum is known for its unique archaeological pieces.
Many checks and balances must be met before the Oriental Institute decides what to display to the public. First, the curator must go through the museum’s art reserve to select what pieces of art would best coincide with the idea for the gallery. After the main attractions are selected the curator contacts the registrars to print out listings of the chosen pieces.
“Condition is very important,” said Teeter. Determining whether an artifact can be displayed must be approved by the conservation team before it’s selected for exhibition.
Instead of showcasing a piece because of its notoriety, as evident with the Art Institute, the Oriental Institute aims for visitors to admire pieces that may be slightly damaged to allow visitors the opportunity to connect with the displayed pieces and form their own opinions.
“We display broken pieces of pottery, stone tools-I think that’s a main difference between us and the Art Institute that may display more restored pieces,” said Jack Green, chief curator of the Oriental Institute Museum and research associate for the Oriental Institute. About 5 percent of what the Oriental Institute Museum has is ever displayed at a given time.
The museum is still registering the many artifacts it has in its possession. “4,400 on display of 300,000 objects,” Green said. The museum tries its best to showcase pieces of art it personally excavated as opposed to displaying art that was acquired through legal purchases by antiquity dealers, which date to as far back as the 1880s.
One of my favorite reliefs from the Art Institute of Chicago, dating to the reign of King Ashurnasirpal II (I’d name my kid that), ultimately did not make the curator’s cut. If the artifact lived at the Oriental Institute Museum, however, it would have made the cut because the museum displays a large number of Assyrian artifacts to the public in its dedicated Assyrian gallery.